Ask Dr. Ruth: The Sex Education We All Deserve

Ask Dr. Ruth: The Sex Education We All Deserve

At 4'6" and ninety-years-old, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is not even close to retirement. Her thick German accent shouts: “Alexa! Who is Dr. Ruth Westheimer?” This question is exactly what documentary Ask Dr. Ruth goes on to explore, painting a portrait of Westheimer’s eventful life and decades-long career.

Chronicling the work of Westheimer’s life, the film pays tribute to her tireless commitment and influence upon American culture. Westheimer was at the forefront of the sexual revolution and as a licensed sex therapist, she comes to conversations of sex and sexuality from a specifially educational and scientific standpoint.

Westheimer entered the spotlight hosting her radio show ‘Sexually Speaking.’ It was her straightforward attitude to sex that established her as the voice that answered the questions no one wanted to ask. Her career is longstanding; with a bibliography consisting of forty-two books, she writes regularly for a newspaper column, is a guest lecturer at two college-level classes, continues to speak at sold-out conferences, and makes TV appearances. Westheimer’s loyalty to her work is clear and this documentary film is a testament to that fact. Removing the shame and assumptions that surround conversations of sex, her influence is visible in the growing progressiveness of sex education. Offering an insight into the woman behind the conversations, Ask Dr. Ruth is a personal exploration of Westheimer in her own words.

It balances recounting Westheimer’s history through archive footage and present-day follow-around sequences. Engaging in conversation with Westheimer, her charming, infectious optimism shines throughout Ask Dr. Ruth. Born in Wiesenfeld, Germany, to the name Karola Siege, upon moving to the US she changed her name to Ruth Westheimer. A survivor of the Holocaust, she had to say goodbye to her parents when she was only a child. From a Switzerland orphanage to the streets of Washington Heights, she has always maintained the priority of education. Even though she was denied a high school education, this barrier did not stifle Westheimer’s craving for knowledge. She took her future into her own hands, dedicating her nights to reading and educating herself. This reflection of her childhood is visualised through animation, which appears out of place within the documentary but is a valuable and contextualising ode to Westheimer’s past. She points to the traumas of her childhood as reasoning for her understanding nature, feeling a deep empathy to those pushed to the fringes of society and regarded as "subhuman".

One aspect of Westheimer’s career that Ask Dr. Ruth briefly explores is her support for the LGBTQ+ community. Her conversations of sex and sexuality are deliberately open, understanding that stimulating an inclusive dialogue is an important responsibility. The film momentarily finds a focus on Westheimer in the eighties, at the time of the AIDS crisis. During Reagan’s presidency he was hugely criticised for his silence on the epidemic while Westheimer is seen as a vocal ally, stating: “Respect is not debatable.” A phrase that is telling of her position, bringing an educational perspective which is essential for informing sex education and not playing into the societal taboos. Although her values may be publicly expressed, Westheimer remains cautious about ‘speaking politics.’ Yet with images of Westheimer and her beaming smile photographed with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it is not hard to assume where her loyalties lie.

Finding slower moments that venture into intimate conversations between Westheimer, her daughter and granddaughter, the film gives time to these moments of personal reflection. A topic that surfaces is Westheimer’s refusal to be labelled a feminist yet, as her granddaughter points out, her lifetime of involvement in women’s rights movements says otherwise. Westheimer finally agrees: “I’m a non-radical feminist.”

Between her work with Planned Parenthood, her vocal involvement for women’s rights and the selfless attitude she possesses, it is clear Ruth Westheimer sincerely aims to help people. While it is just a snapshot of a life, it is compellingly engaging. The film shines brightly with the spirit of this determined woman; a grandmotherly figure who is more than happy to tell you to say the word ‘sex’ with more excitement and remind you that a woman’s orgasm is no myth. Ask Dr. Ruth is instantly and continuously charming which is all down to Westheimer herself. A documentary that, above all, is an ode to this inspiring woman, a trailblazer and an activist who deserves this recognition.

Emily Maskell

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